By: Stephen J Frenzl
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“You did WHAT in college?” Over the years that question has been asked of me many times, usually followed by audible gulps and gasps. Surprise (or slight) aside, at that time I couldn’t imagine that the job prompting such a startled reaction would reveal a crisis that continues to impact countless couples today: If your partner dies tonight, will you know how to live securely and confidently by yourself?
It’s a sobering situation, one that for many millions of people the answer is NO… and consequently, most will be destined for dire times ahead. However, it need not be that way — which is why I wish to offer a no-nonsense, no-cost planning tool to help couples elude the (otherwise) inevitable.
Let me explain. While a student at the University of Colorado in the late 1960s I held a variety of jobs, one of them as a nightman/apprentice at a local mortuary. The work was demanding and frankly, often upsetting. However, for me the most heartrending aspect wasn’t dealing with the dead, it was observing the living, the survivors. Because out of that experience came the sad realization that families did not just grieve the loss of loved ones. The survivors (most of them, wives) were also wholly unprepared to return home to live life alone.
As apparent as the problem was at the time, my graduation then living a life got in the way, so over the years I simply forgot. That is… until five decades later when that crazy-kid mortuary experience produced two unexpected results — one of them profoundly unsettling. First, at the request of friends fascinated by the mysteries of mortuaries, I wrote a memoir. Named COFFEE & DONUTS WITH THE DEARLY DEPARTED, it describes my job through the vision and vernacular of a callow 20-year-old college kid (the tales told in a two-volume e-book on Amazon.com). Second, in the course of creating the stories, beta readers asked how such unlikely (to put it politely) employment affected my life. Were there lessons to share? It was from those queries that I recounted the many survivors who had had no plan, no guideline for how to manage their household alone. So once again, their grief, fear, and anxiety weighed heavy on my mind.
And thus I wondered: has the situation improved? I did some research and learned — very sorry to say — that little has changed in the half century since. Surveys reveal that today approximately 70% of U.S. couples are not prepared for the time when one of them will be living alone. That’s 100 MILLION families with no plan — and about half of them are seniors, the people with the most urgent need.
Why is that? Although many types are offered today, why don’t more couples have a life-alone plan? The most common reasons: denial (almost always by men); difficulty and affordability (some are complicated and expensive); effort (labor is required); and procrastination (no time to spare now, maybe later). However, to be sure, TIME is critical and here’s why. As we age, such important tasks simply become more difficult to accomplish. Therefore, we need to make plans NOW while we’re still physically and mentally able. If we don’t, for the survivor the aftermath can be severe.
A case in point: recently I observed a close friend who lost her husband and is now alone for the first time in fifty years. She and her spouse hadn’t planned ahead. As a consequence, she did not realize all the legal and financial tasks or the numerous everyday activities he performed without her knowledge. The aftermath — now she is not only beset by grief, she is also overwhelmed to the point of panic by new and unfamiliar duties and responsibilities. Lamentably, her experience has been traumatic, chaotic, even terrifying.
When I shared her story with other women in my retirement community, I was surprised that so many said they are going through the same situation — and o-o-h-h-h how they wish they had known what to do beforehand, now that they’re struggling to live alone. Plainly, my “stranded survivor” observations 50 years ago, coupled with my friend’s personal plight and the ongoing prevalence of the problem among women today, deserve a long overdue call to action.
Unfortunately, the situation is even more widespread. Although women generally outlive men by several years thus are more likely to become “the survivor,” domestically-challenged widowers suffer similar hardships, often times more painful. Indeed, I dare say (with apologies to all renaissance men) that a suddenly widowed man may be in more trouble than a suddenly widowed woman if he is suddenly forced to live alone. Combine the challenges of both genders and the result is an overwhelming societal conundrum. It is one I have personally witnessed — and empathized with — many times, therefore the reason I feel a particular compunction to help resolve.
If your partner dies tonight, will you know how to live securely and confidently by yourself? How will you perform the many and varied duties of running your household alone (such as knowing when to pay the utility bill, how to fix the garage door opener, working the hot tub)? Where will you find important things (like the gas turn-off valve, computer passwords, electrical switch box, appliance owner manuals)? How will you maintain your home and vehicles (who’s our plumber, electrician, auto service dealer, changing a flat tire)? Who are our friends who also need to know so they can help the survivor?
Can you answer those questions now? If you’re like most couples, probably not. And yet they are critical to the wellbeing of the survivor. That’s why it behooves each partner to have practical knowledge of the other’s areas of expertise. Unfortunately, most of us don’t.
Why? I believe a principal reason (besides denial, etc.) is because the need to have a plan for the survivor is not adequately and urgently communicated. Thus, most people simply don’t understand how devastating the weeks, months and years after a partner’s death can be for the person left behind. So that is my mission: to build awareness of the problem’s ominous nature and to encourage as many couples as possible to counteract it by completing a life-alone plan. And I say any life-alone plan — because any plan is better than no plan.
By: Stephen J Frenzl